"Robert Nelsen is a down to earth, personable guy...no doubt, but he is so much more. He is a true leader. He is one with a clear vision who understands that when you invest in the youth, we will all have a brighter economic future."
With those words, Veronica Gonzales, UTPA's vice president for university advancement, introduced her boss to a filled banquet hall Thursday night, Oct. 24, as the 2013 Edinburg Chamber of Commerce "Man of the Year."
Leija, who graduated from UTPA with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and later earned a master's in library science through the University of North Texas and Texas Woman's University, has been director of Edinburg's Dustin Michael Sekula Memorial Library since 2003.
In addition to introducing the UTPA president as "Man of the Year," Gonzales was the keynote speaker for this year's banquet, sharing with the audience the importance of giving back. "You are the givers in our community. You are the ones who go to all the events; you are the ones who write the checks...you are the ones who build the homes and donate the clothes and do all of those great things," she said, saluting the attendees for their generosity. But she also encouraged them to think about making the students at the university a part of their philanthropy.
A gift to a student who would otherwise not be able to go to school, she said, "is an investment multiplied many times over. That's what makes a community great, that's what makes a community strong."
Later in the evening in her introduction of Nelsen, which was accompanied by photographs of the UTPA president involved in various campus and community activities, Gonzales said that "like so many in the Rio Grande Valley, he understands what it is to work hard, to value and help your family, and he is very aware of and appreciates the power of education in transforming lives.
"Robert is beloved by his administrators, his faculty, his staff and students because he is hands-on and always keeps an open door policy. He hugs and high fives the students as he is walking on campus. He attends every athletic and academic event, and the sentiment he feels for the Rio Grande Valley is genuine and obvious."
Gonzales noted that "under Dr. Nelsen's leadership, enrollment at Pan American for the first time has grown to over 20,000 students; we graduated almost 400 more students in 2013 than in 2012; the students required to take remedial classes has dropped from 47 percent to 16 percent; our six-year graduation rate under his leadership has grown more than 4 percentage points; and the retention of our first- and second-year students has climbed each and every year."
She also praised his involvement in bringing a new university to the Rio Grande Valley and highlighted several of the university's recent national recognitions, including UTPA being selected as "College of the Year" by the National Hispanic Institute and the singling out of Nelsen by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan "as one of those helping Hispanic students succeed" during a national public policy conference.
Gonzales also said that, thanks to Nelsen's visionary leadership, the university has become fully engaged with the community. "And I mean fully engaged," she emphasized. "In fact, our strategic plan is called 'The Engaged University'...because Dr. Nelsen knows that only through partnerships with our community can we really move forward as a university."
In his response, Nelsen characteristically deflected much of the limelight onto his administrative team, several students attending the event and the community leaders in the room, and he talked about the new University of Texas that was approved unanimously by the Texas Legislature last spring.
"We are going to see amazing changes in the Valley. We are going to see jobs that we never dreamed would happen here....This is an amazing time, this is a time for our children. This is a time when we're going to be able to provide what the Valley deserves and what the Valley needs," he said.
While thanking the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce for the "Man of the Year" award "from the bottom of my heart," Nelsen asked one thing of the banquet attendees.
"As we go forward, don't worry about the name of the university. Don't worry about traditions. Worry and care and love the children of the Valley. They are our future. This new university is about them. It's not about a name. It's about them....Love those kids, help those kids...be part of our future. The future of the Valley is so, so bright."
Also honored by the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce at the annual installation banquet were Carlos Lopez, City of Edinburg Firefighter of the Year; Augustin Lozano Jr. of Bert Ogden Motors, 2013 Ambassador of the Year; and Marissa Castañeda of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, 2013 Outstanding Leadership Award recipient.